"This is multidimensional chess," said Mark Dopp, general counsel for the American Meat Institute, which represents packers and processors of beef with operations in the United States and Canada. "To say this is a complicated circumstance is understated."
The AMI has asked that the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia order the USDA to allow even more Canadian cattle into the country. AMI wants to drop the age limit in the rule, arguing that science supports this as a low-risk move. That case was heard Feb. 23. "We didn't object to the final rule, but it didn't go far enough," Dopp said. He said about 30 U.S. processors, such as Rosen's Diversified Inc. of Minnesota, are suffering because they specialize in slaughtering and processing older animals.
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The Agriculture Department has not been willing to expand imports to cattle older than 30 months, saying it needs more time to consider the issue in light of two more recent cases of mad cow in Canada.
Meanwhile, R-CALF filed a lawsuit on Jan. 10 in U.S. District Court in Billings, Mont., that opposes the AMI position. The case, which is to be heard tomorrow, asks that the rule be stopped because of the dangers posed to the domestic herd and consumers from Canadian cattle.
"The first line of defense is litigation," said WilliamBullard, chief executive of R-CALF. "But we are simultaneously and aggressively urging Congress to take appropriate action. The only appropriate action is to repeal the rule in its entirety, [have USDA] withdraw it, or have the court strike it down.
"Our fear is that USDA is jeopardizing consumer confidence in the safety of our beef."
Bullard said that even though domestic producers were receiving "historically high prices," the market would be devastated if other cases of BSE were to occur, especially since beef is not labeled by country of origin.
The issue will get further airing when industry groups and the USDA appear at a House Agriculture Committee hearing today. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which also represents producers, is likely to tell the panel it opposes importing cattle older than 30 months, but it wants science, not lawsuits, to determine the protocol for reopening the border.
"We are setting the world stage for how countries reestablish trade after a BSE incident," said Jay Truitt, vice president of government affairs for the cattlemen. "Trade in beef was a huge win before our world went awry with BSE."